Academy Adventures   Edward Whalen

While the most meaningful USAFA experience to me was the people I met and the close friends I made during my 4-year journey, the adventures we had during our Academy time were also important to me, and could fill a book! When I was a kid growing up in New York City, I dreamed of both flying (I got to fulfill that dream as a USAF fighter pilot) and seeing the world.  All the trips we got to take from USAFA started my lifetime of global adventure. As a “New Yawker” the farthest I had travelled was from Queens to see the cows at the Bronx Zoo, about an hour on the NYC subway, so I was starting from a pretty basic level!


I quickly learned as a Doolie to volunteer for any trip that got announced. One of my first trips was a 31st Cadet Squadron trip down to our “sponsor” Real Air Force squadron down in Cannon AFB, New Mexico. In the format that became the standard for cadet squadron or cadet club trips, some magical scheduler found an AF Reserve or Guard unit that needed some “official” business flying us around the US and/or the world, and we were all set. We flew down in a C-118 or some other almost-antique airplane, but for us freshman it was a thrilling adventure.


I’ll never forget our first night at Cannon AB. As was the custom back in the Real Air Force of the 1970s, all the squadron pilots and their wives went to the Officers’ club after flying stopped (which was pretty early…we were lifting scotch at 1600 if my memory serves me) and started drinking. I grew up in an Irish family in NY and was no stranger to booze, but I was amazed by the amount these guys in flight suits and their partying wives could guzzle! The USAF beyond USAFA sure looked pretty attractive!


The next morning came way too soon after our night at the club, but I was lucky enough to get an orientation backseat ride in a 2-seat F-100 at oh-dark-thirty. I think I was as hung over as my pilot, but what the hell. My very first jet ride was to the bombing range. When I flew F-4s and F-16s later in my career, practice bombing mission would be a ho-hum experience, but my first-ever jet ride half hung over, it was an experience I still vividly remember! It was a hot New Mexico day, the “Hun” had a sad excuse for an air conditioner, so it was hot and oppressive under the helmet and oxygen mask which were all new to me. We checked in with the range tower, up in the pattern, down the chute twelve times to drop practice bombs, 5 or 6 g’s (aarrgh to my inexperienced body) on the pullout….I did everything in my power not to puke, and was proud that I survived the ride grabbing for a barf bag.


We all repeated the previous afternoon and night by joining our commissioned comrades and their wives at another round of drinking and partying. Again this night also was way too short, and we stumbled back to the flight line for our trip back to USAFA. This time, many of us used the USAF-issued barf bags during the relatively short (but bumpy and hot) flight back to Pete field, then followed by the “blue goose” bus ride down the rutted dirt roads back to USAFA.


After the previous experience, my rule was expanded: volunteer for any trip away from USAFA, and join any cadet club that had a trip coming up. The Academy’s “club joining” ROE was pretty liberal, as the cadet clubs would take anyone with a heartbeat and a professed interest in their organizing principle. My best friend at USAFA, Ron Sega, alerted me to a Cadet Computer Science trip to Puerto Rico, purportedly to visit the huge antenna at Arecibo. While Ron had a good excuse as a physics major to join, as a history major who hated science I’m glad the Computer Science club let me in as a member. We flew down to Ramey AFB on some unmemorable trash hauler, and then put on our “civvies” and hit San Juan, checking out the fort and later the drinking quarters of town.  The next day we bounced our way over gutted roads to see the Arecibo antenna in the middle of the Puerto Rican jungles (antenna visit: check).  When we got back to town, somehow we got the notion to go to the San Juan Casino…totally illegal by USAFA rules, but our sympathetic escort officers (a 2nd and 1st Lt) lent us suit jackets (required for casino entry) and off we went for a gambler’s night on the town.


Having cheated death at the roulette wheel and gambling tables, we decided the next day to enjoy some swimming under the Ramey Officers’ Club (which was up on a cliff) at the beach. Being 19 years old and invincible, we disregarded the huge signs that screamed: “Dangerous Undertow, Swimming Prohibited.” Sega and I almost drowned, but were able to gut our way, exhausted, back to shore to live for another adventure.


At some point during the 3rd class school year several hundred cadets flew to the Royal Air Force Academy at Cranwell, UK, to support our USAFA rugby club. I had no clue about rugby, but a free trip to England…what the heck! We boarded a C-130A at Pete Field and chugged our way to the UK, hopping through innumerable and unforgettable stops on the way. At Cranwell we joined the Royal AF in the same Real AF after-work undertaking of trying to drink all the beer and booze at the Officers’ Mess. Unfortunately, when the next morning came around I was comatose and unable to fly at one of the training aircraft at the Cranwell base (I then swore to never miss another flight briefing in my flying career, and I was able to keep this oath to myself for the next 26 years).  One of the unforgettable events during our stay was attending a true, full formal, Brit style “Dining In”…where we got to wear mess dress, eat raw eggs (a peculiar Brit custom), and go walking up on the mess table smashing dinnerware when challenged by the Brit officer in command.


As a 2nd classman, I became an officer in the Cadet German club, and had to be creative to set up an interesting trip for the club. We came up with the idea to visit the German Luftwaffe Patriot training facility at Ft Bliss, TX. We convinced our club OIC, Luftwaffe Major Andreas Naumann, that going to Bliss was crucial to our German language education. Of course, I had my fellow traveler, Ron Sega, join the club, despite his zero involvement with the German language or culture other than drinking beer (Ron spoke French, so I guess at least it was a European language…). We found a willing ANG unit and flew down to El Paso, did our requisite German language discussions with the German SAM guys, and then went out on the town. Somehow we ended up in a Mexican dive bar across the border looking for some kind of show…thank God we ended up only drinking crummy beer and making our way unscathed back to the army post for our return to USAFA. Major Naumann was happy he didn’t have to bail the club leadership out of a Juarez jail.


The crowning achievements of our travel adventures were the many locations we visited during our summer breaks by hopping on USAF aircraft Space-A (Space Available). We would wear our cadet uniform to get on a flight, stuff it into our backpacks, and roll out our sleeping bags on the floors of AF tankers or transports and truly flew first class! My first summer, I Space-A’d to Madrid with Class of ‘74 Cadet J Moats (RIP-he was later one of our first F-16 pilots, but died when flying a F-16 that at low altitude crashed into the ground from a technical glitch). J’s dad was the NAF commander in Torrejon AB, and he welcomed us with drinks on a silver platter and an invite to jump into the pool in his backyard! I ended up hopping up to Germany after Spain, and spent the weeks remaining on my leave in Koblenz on the Mosel with a German-American family (he was a US WW2 B-24 pilot, she an ex-Nazi ballerina) who picked me up hitch-hiking along the Rhine river.


We used the next few summers Space-A hopping to see more of the world, ending up in Teheran, Iran for a week, and then during another summer, hitch-hiking our way around Europe once we hopped to the continent. Ron Sega and I saw Vienna, Austria; Munich, Germany; Ljubljana, Yugoslavia (and the Postonja Caves); and all the cool cities of Italy as we travelled the hitchhiker roads.


There are a lot more stories in our adventure archive once we became active duty, but those are best saved for another evening and another beer…in any case here’s a toast to our Class, USAFA, and our undying spirit of adventure!!


Bill Van Horn

9491 South Johnson Court 

Littleton, CO 80127


303-948-8435   work

303-596-3615   cell


USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!



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